After a handful of games during Labor Day weekend to whet the appetite of fans across the country, a more complete slate arrives as three of the nation's top 10 teams open their season this week. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish will be the first member of that trio to take the field when they host the Duke Blue Devils on Saturday afternoon.
The Blue Devils and Fighting Irish progressed through the 2019 season on vastly different paths. Duke reached the season's midpoint at 4-2 before losing its next five games and ultimately finishing at 5-7, missing the postseason for the first time since 2016. Notre Dame, on the other hand, finished 11-2 with a 33-9 win over Iowa State in the Camping World Bowl to cap off its third consecutive 10-win season.
Duke and Notre Dame have met six times, with the Irish holding a 4-2 lead in the series that began with a 9-7 Irish victory in 1958. After two more meetings in the 1960s, 41 years elapsed before the sides would see each other again in 2007. The Blue Devils' last win came in a 38-35 nail-biter in South Bend in 2016, as the Irish returned to their winning ways last season with a dominant 38-7 performance in Durham.
Duke at Notre Dame
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 12 at 2:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Notre Dame -20
When Duke Has the Ball
The Duke offense figures to display two sizable shake-ups from last season's unit. For one, head coach David Cutcliffe — entering his 13th season at the helm in Durham — announced that he would assume play-calling duties this season. When the Blue Devils take the field on Saturday, they'll be led by a newcomer at quarterback in Clemson graduate transfer Chase Brice.
Brice hasn't been on the field much in his two-year career, appearing in 23 games — mostly in the latter stages of Clemson blowout wins — but attempting more than 10 passes in only three of them. His shining moment arrived in 2018, taking over for an injured Trevor Lawrence and leading a come-from-behind win over Syracuse to keep alive the Tigers' undefeated season and aspirations of a national title. A benefit for Brice is that Duke's top two receivers from 2019 — sophomore receiver Jalon Calhoun (46 receptions, 420 yards) and senior tight end Noah Gray (51 receptions, 392 yards) — both return, providing much-needed experience in Cutcliffe's system to smooth the new signal-caller's transition.
The Irish held nine of their 13 opponents a season ago to 20 or fewer points, with four — Bowling Green, Boston College, Duke, and Iowa State — failing to crack double digits. Leading tacklers Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (a preseason All-ACC selection) and Drew White return for their senior seasons, providing veteran leadership to the linebacker unit. In the secondary, sophomore Kyle Hamilton (four interceptions, six pass breakups) will be a leader for the defense after finishing top-5 among safeties in Pro Football Focus' pass coverage grade and allowing only seven catches all season.
When Notre Dame Has the Ball
Graduate student quarterback Ian Book is back for his third season as the starter, coming off a 2019 season in which he set a school record with five games with at least four passing touchdowns. He also etched his name into program lore when, against Duke last season, he became the first Notre Dame player to tally four passing touchdowns and 100 yards rushing in the same game.
Book will be supported by the return of the entire starting offensive line from last season, and offensive coordinator Tommy Rees is set to handle a full season of play-calling after a more-than-successful trial run against Iowa State in the Camping World Bowl. This year's receivers will need to step up after playing mostly a supporting role last season — rising senior Javon McKinley, the returning leader in receiving yards, caught just 11 passes for 268 yards and four touchdowns — while the backfield is also a question mark, as sophomore Kyren Williams and top-50 recruit Chris Tyree are talented yet largely unproven.
Duke finished middle-of-the-pack nationally and among ACC teams in both scoring and total defense a season ago, allowing 29.2 points and 379.6 yards per game. The Blue Devils didn't manage to hold a single opponent under 10 points in 2019; meanwhile, six teams — including three of Duke's final four opponents — scored at least 30. The Blue Devils lose their top two tacklers — Koby Quansah and Dylan Singleton — but Victor Dimukeje (8.5 sacks) and Chris Rumph II (6.5 sacks) were two of the ACC's best at bringing down the quarterback last season and will be called upon to cause havoc once again in 2020.
Both Notre Dame and Duke will look to make a statement in the season opener on Saturday. The Blue Devils' aim is to put the struggle of 2019 in the rearview mirror, while the Irish have conference — and national — title aspirations. In a season sure to be full of uncertainty, Saturday will be the first indicator of exactly how close each is to its ambitions.
Prediction: Notre Dame 38, Duke 14
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.